In October of last year, the German curator Beatrix Ruf abruptly stepped down
from her position as the director of Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum
—the leading contemporary art and design institution in the Netherlands—in a storm of controversy and accusations of conflict of interest.
The leading Dutch national newspaper, NRC Handelsblad, had run a series of articles that noted the existence of a side company Ruf had established, Currentmatters BV, and asked why it had reported earnings of nearly $500,000 in 2015.
The Stedelijk had just appointed a new chairman of its supervisory board, Ferdinand Grapperhaus, who was also about to start a new job as Minister of Justice and Security for the Netherlands. A report released this Tuesday explains that Grapperhaus decided to “carefully evaluate the agreements between his predecessor and Ruf,” requested an external investigation, and advised Ruf to consult a lawyer and a communications specialist.
This new 127-page report
, however, found that not only was Ruf working “in good faith” with her “heart and soul” for the museum, but that there were no conflicts of interest between the work she was doing for her company and her role as a museum director. In fact, the report found that the connections she had to art collectors and other art institutions were beneficial
to the Stedelijk, and described them as “beautiful examples of fruitful conflicts of interest.”
“Most of the ancillary activities in which Ms. Ruf was involved were not in conflict with the interests of the museum and were often in fact serving the interests of the museum,” the report states. “It can be established that the nature of the side activities are so intertwined with the activities of an artistic director that these are in fact a part of the normal work of a director. Moreover, many of the side activities offered the opportunity for informal contact and an exchange of thoughts, ideas and relevant information with colleagues.”
The Stedelijk announced after the report was released that three members of its seven-member board would be resigning.
Three days after the independent city investigation found that Ruf had been wrongly accused of conflict-of-interest charges, she sat down at her home in Amsterdam with Artsy’s Nina Siegal to talk about how she feels about being exonerated, why she quit her job, and what’s next for her.
Nina Siegal: How are you feeling now that the report has basically exonerated you?
Beatrix Ruf: I’m happy that the investigation really clears me and I’m happy that they said it publicly. I always knew it, of course, but it needed to be said by someone else. They present the facts now that they believe in my integrity, and I’m also very happy that it’s out there in the press. It was crucial for me to have this report out there to the same extent that the [allegations] were out there.
NS: Has anyone from the museum contacted you about the prospect of returning to the museum, or with an apology?
BR: No, but you can see there are a lot of discussions going on now, and the board is working on it.
NS: What do you think about the fact that three of the seven board members resigned this week?
BR: I don’t want to comment on that.
NS: Why did you not respond more actively to the NRC’s inquiries about your ancillary activities, to explain your position at the time?
BR: The Stedelijk answered all the questions that the NRC had for us, but when [the new board chair] Ferdinand Grapperhaus took over, he decided to be the one who was answering the questions. He said he would respond with general statements rather than answering specific questions.
NS: Did you feel you were silenced by that decision?
BR: It was clear that another process had been started. The process then was to inform Ferdinand about details and facts, which I really tried to do. But from October 10th to 12th, he was off on vacation, and then on the 13th was the supervisory board meeting, and [on] the 16th, I resigned.
NS: Were you pressured to resign?
BR: Yes. I had to face the fact that old and recent members of the supervisory board would just not be behind me. The supervisory board had written an internal report on me and I was not allowed to read it. The museum’s subsidy from the city was under threat and I was told that it was at stake because of the news reports. They said that it would be the best for the institution if I left, to calm down the press, and to let the board take over and try to solve the problem for the museum. I could not be part of it.
NS: The report notes that you could have been more transparent with the whole board about the details of your outside activities. How do you respond to that?
BR: We had regular exchanges. When I started with Stedelijk, it was agreed that I would tell Alexander Ribbink, [the previous chairman of the board,] and Alexander would communicate to the board. I was transparent according to the agreement we had, and he was the chair of the board, so I could just believe that everything was in order. Of course, you can always be more transparent. I could have communicated everything to the whole board, but I didn’t think of that at that time. For me, the process was that I talk to Alexander Ribbink. They say in this case she should have understood more about the Dutch sensibilities. And probably, I should have. Yes, I learned something.
NS: If there’s anything you would have done differently, with all this hindsight, what would it be?
BR: I’m really happy with what happened during the time I was at the Stedelijk and I’m proud of what we realized. I’m also proud of the unrealized projects that they’re just starting to realize. I’m happy the report says that I have had integrity and I would reinvest again in all those activities I started there, and also in the relationships I had there. There’s nothing I’d do differently.
NS: Why do you think that the NRC started to run the series of articles questioning your activities at the Stedelijk? Do you know who was leaking information to them?
BR: I truly can’t answer that. I have suspicions, but I really do not know. I hope that the Stedelijk will put some effort into finding that out.
NS: Can you describe the impact that this has had on your life?
BR: It’s had a huge impact for eight months now. I was under suspicion and it was very hard to face the outside world. There was a lot of damage done to my reputation. It was hard to go into the art world, and to just walk around the streets, or to be any place. I had had a very full schedule that suddenly came to a complete stop, and then, instead of my work, I was busy with conversations with investigators and searching for documents to present to them, and going through all these emails, gathering all the materials that they asked for. It was really a lot of time. It was also very, very sad for me that all the projects and dreams I had for this institution and all the exhibitions I’d planned had to go on without me. I’m very happy now that I have been cleared; I feel much better. But I still have been hit by a bus.
NS: You don’t seem at all angry. Are you angry?
BR: I’ve had phases. I have been angry, of course, in moments. Mostly, it’s been really painful. The most painful thing for me was that I knew—and all these other people knew—that I didn’t take money, and all these people knew I never did sleazy deals. We all knew that, but it has to be said by an independent commission, and that is a really weird situation. It didn’t count anymore what I said.
NS: Are you planning to take any legal action against the city, the museum, or to bring a libel suit against the NRC?
BR: I don’t think that I can bring legal action against the NRC, no. I think that the report that’s come out does a lot to fix what has happened.
NS: How do you now go about rebuilding your reputation?
BR: I think this report, and particularly how it was received in the press, is doing a lot already, and now, I can start thinking again and talking to colleagues, and just make sure that the word gets out. I was just in Basel and I was talking to museum colleagues again, and a lot of people were very supportive. I think it will start to change.
NS: What’s next for you?
BR: I need some time to digest all this. I’m extremely relieved. It’s only now that I can start thinking about the future again. I’m looking for something in museums, and I hope very much that I will be able to be active in that field again.